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Could Falling Oil Prices Kill This American Industry?

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In this Dec. 5, 2012 photo, the sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo. Citizen fears about hydraulic fracturing, a drilling procedure used to pry oil and gas from rock deep underground, have made "fracking" the hottest political question in Colorado. In November, citizens in the Denver suburb of Longmont voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking despite heavy opposition from the oil and gas industry and warnings of lawsuits. Now the fracking debate is rocking small local governments _ and leaving the industry wondering how to proceed in a state that has long embraced the oil and gas industry. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Oil is cheap.

Could the good news for consumers come at an unexpected cost?

Oil prices — and gas prices with them — have been on the decline the past few months, with West Texas Intermediate crude oil reaching new lows close to $77 per barrel Tuesday afternoon.

Image via NASDAQ The plummeting price of oil. (Chart via NASDAQ)

But as Business Insider's Sam Ro noted on Monday, the plummeting price of petroleum could quickly wreck an American industry — and that might be exactly what some foreign oil producers want.

In this Dec. 5, 2012 photo, the sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo. Citizen fears about hydraulic fracturing, a drilling procedure used to pry oil and gas from rock deep underground, have made "fracking" the hottest political question in Colorado. In November, citizens in the Denver suburb of Longmont voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking despite heavy opposition from the oil and gas industry and warnings of lawsuits. Now the fracking debate is rocking small local governments _ and leaving the industry wondering how to proceed in a state that has long embraced the oil and gas industry. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) In this Dec. 5, 2012 photo, the sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colorado. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

The U.S. shale oil boom has been a key factor in the recent drop in oil prices, and the boom's very success could be its downfall: Since it's expensive to extract oil from shale formations by fracking, oil needs to be above a certain price level for fracking to be profitable.

Morgan Stanley analysts have pegged that profitability point to be between $76 and $77 per barrel — which is exactly where the price of oil was headed on Tuesday.

If oil prices continue to drop, it could be disastrous for countries such as Russia, which rely heavily on oil export income, but it could also spell the end of the fracking revolution that helped make the U.S. the world's biggest oil producer this year.

Who would stand to benefit from the end of fracking?

Saudi Arabia, for one.

The oil-rich kingdom has indicated that it has no problem with drastically lower prices, but will rather take the opportunity to sweat out the competition, thereby grabbing a bigger piece of the (temporarily) less lucrative pie — and being perfectly positioned to profit if fracking ceases and oil prices rise.

Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter

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